Inspired Tigers are positioned to give Rangers fits

ARLINGTON, Texas – It’s the Texas Rangers, of course, who have the advantages of a lead in the American League Championship Series, two home games to win one, and the deeper lineup and bullpen.

And yet they could have a problem with the Detroit Tigers.

See, this underdog stuff, this guts-and-glory stuff, this team-of-destiny stuff, it’s all just bar talk and column filler right up until the moment the underdog goes all guts and glory and team-of-destiny on your comfortable self.

You know, when they start playing with tears rolling down their faces. When a couple bad knees or a knife in the ribs become inspirational. Or when a double-play ball hits the stupid base and winds up down the left-field line.

Phil Coke celebrates after getting the final out of Detroit's Game 5 victory over Texas.
(Getty Images)

If you’re wondering how a team that won 95 games in the regular season, then knocked off the New York Yankees in the division series and employs the best pitcher and hitter in the league finds itself as the puppy dog with the splinter in its paw, it had everything to do with the first five games of this series.

It had gotten so bad for the Tigers that their manager had taken to declaring his club’s shortcomings before games. On the other hand, it got so good that Jim Leyland called his shot before Thursday’s Game 5, when he was down three games to one.

His bullpen was gassed, he said, so he’d play with two pitchers: Justin Verlander(notes) and Phil Coke(notes).

And then he did.

Nobody does that.

So, yeah, that was Coke – the same Coke who allowed a .314 batting average to right-handed hitters in the regular season – pitching through (well, “through” might be strong) Ian Kinsler(notes), Elvis Andrus(notes), lefty Josh Hamilton(notes), Michael Young(notes), Adrian Beltre(notes) and Mike Napoli(notes) (with Nelson Cruz(notes) on deck) in the ninth inning.

The point is, the only things that were going to save the Tigers were a win and a day off. Both arrived Friday.

“We got a shot,” Leyland said before leaving for Dallas and Game 6. “Their shot is better than ours.”

[Related: Fortunate bounce aids Tigers in Game 5 win]

The Rangers have the advantage of the three-games-to-two lead, and of deciding it at home, and no team in baseball scored more runs in its home park than the Rangers.

The issue, however, is starting pitching. Last we saw Derek Holland(notes), who’ll start for the Rangers on Saturday, he was failing to get out of the third inning in Game 2. It’s a funny thing about Holland, a 25-year-old lefty. In an otherwise breakout season in which he had 16 wins, threw four shutouts and nine times pitched into the eighth inning, five times he couldn’t pitch into or past the fourth.

He’s an excitable sort. This is an excitable time.

“I’m going to be a lot more calmer than I was before,” Holland said Friday. “Just to get the jitters out was the big thing.”

In case you’re wondering, and I really hope you’re not, Holland did not banish his mustache – such as it is – after the poor start.

When a local TV guy asked him about it, Holland sighed.

“It’s staying,” he said. “It doesn’t dictate how I pitch, man.”

Max Scherzer(notes), on the other hand, started Game 2 for the Tigers and pitched six solid innings. In two starts and a relief appearance this postseason, Scherzer’s ERA is 2.70.

And if that matchup doesn’t go well for the Rangers, Game 7 is Colby Lewis(notes) against Doug Fister(notes). Fister outpitched Lewis by a lot in Game 3.

While the Rangers played all the way to the World Series last season, won another AL West title in this one and are again on the verge of the World Series, they haven’t spent much time – as an organization – as the favorite.

They are now. They are the ones who, by the time Game 6 arrives, will have spent three days with putting away the Tigers on their minds. They are healthy enough, even with Josh Hamilton’s bothersome groin strain. They had the Tigers down, if not out, and then had Verlander to deal with, and actually threw plenty of good at-bats at him. They knew they had to get to Coke, and they did, and very nearly got him.

But the Rangers also have granted the Tigers 48 hours of rest. They’ve granted them hope. While that may sound a little wispy, it’s no wispier than believing in all that underdog stuff. And nobody believes in that, right?

“I don’t know that I’ve ever been prouder of a team than this one,” Leyland said. “Are they good enough? We’ll find out in a few days.”

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Tim Brown is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. He co-authored with Jim Abbott the memoir “Imperfect: an Improbable Life”.   Follow him on Twitter.   Send Tim a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Oct 14, 2011